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VICTORIA THEODORE (Stevie Wonder band)

VICTORIA THEODORE (Stevie Wonder band)
September 10, 2008 | Author: Greg Phillips

victoria_theodore_mediumNobody … and I mean NOBODY, commands as much respect in the global music community as Stevie Wonder. So if you’ve been invited to play in Stevie’s band, there is no questioning the fact that you have made it. You are also undoubtedly an extraordinary musician yourself. Victoria Theodore plays keyboards and sings in Wonder’s current touring band.  Apart from being one of America’s most versatile musicians, Victoria is also a fine singer, actor, dancer and savvy business person. Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips caught up with Victoria prior to the upcoming and much anticipated Stevie Wonder Australian tour to chat about her amazing music world.

Looking through your biography, the thing that stands out is your incredible versatility. Is that something you have consciously worked on to increase your professional opportunities or is it purely out of a love for music of all kinds, or perhaps a bit of both?

My versatility evolved as a result of my love for all kinds of music. It was never intentionally business motivated. I adore the challenge of virtuoso Classical piano repertoire, the passion and spontaneity of Gospel and Jazz, the dance influenced rhythms of R&B and Soul, the fun and spirit of Musical Theater. I approach the varied styles of music that I perform as an actor might a role: when performing Shakespeare, a good actor chooses to assume the mannerisms, dialect, and temperament appropriate to the style of the work; when performing a modern work, the same choices apply.

I never saw any reason why I shouldn’t be able to play any style I choose, in a way that demonstrates my respect for the style, and at least approximates a valid performance of that style. I work to expand my musicianship and attain greater levels of mastery and versatility as a pianist and composer, both of which inform my teaching practice, another of my many passions.

Honestly, it takes significant practice to maintain and continually develop my versatility. I created a practice regiment for myself that includes allotted time for work on technique, improvisation (specifically blues and jazz), the study of master keyboard solos, revisiting virtuoso classical pieces, the enhancement of my memorised repertoire (as an excellent sight-reader, I developed a terrible habit of never memorising music since I can read just about anything at tempo), and of course for working on Stevie’s tunes. If I’m able to follow the entire regiment, it takes approximately 5 hours to complete. It’s very challenging, given my performance and teaching schedule, to meet the goal of completing the regiment on a daily basis, but I do try!

Was there a particular moment in your life which inspired you on a path to becoming a professional musician?

When I was about 14 years old, I witnessed a performance by concert pianist Andre Watts. I don’t remember exactly what he performed that night, but I knew that I wanted to perform with the mastery and freedom that I sensed in his playing. Becoming a professional pianist seemed inevitable from that point forward.

You are currently touring with Stevie, have played with Tony Bennett and Prince, Thelma Houston, John Mayer and John Legend, great orchestras, opera companies, and choirs. You sing and play keyboards, compose, write poetry, act, etc. Is there one particular area that you enjoy more than the others or would hope to do more of in the future?

If I didn’t need to sleep, I’d pursue all of my interests to a greater degree. Of course, I hope to continue playing keyboards and singing with Stevie Wonder for as long as possible, as it’s certainly a dream come true to work for him, but I’d also love to do more writing, to study dance seriously (Ballet, Hip Hop, African and Salsa are my favourites), to master a few languages, hone my culinary skills, etc. It’s been my lifelong goal to be a true Renaissance woman, and gradually I see myself developing into one!

You never seem to stray too far from your roots; you are involved in many humanitarian causes. How important is it to you to stay grounded in a business that affects many people in a negative way?

I’ve always been a highly empathetic person. My personal credo is to treat all people with respect, and to live my life in an exemplary manner, even in the entertainment industry, which is often shallow and fickle. I was the beneficiary of the largess and generosity of many loving and inspirational people, and it is my honour to offer that same kindness and generosity to others. I can’t imagine being any other way. Stevie Wonder’s music brilliantly conveys the concepts of love, kindness, empathy and charity. His personal and musical humanitarianism is infectious and compels me to be a better person, and musician, each and every time I’m on stage; a feeling that lingers far beyond performance.

Are there any plans to record more of your own material in the future?

Yes, there are several songs that I’m working on for my own project. It’s still in the editing phase, but I love what I have so far. The songs are pop-oriented, but feature my piano skills. I also write songs intended for placement with other artists. I’d love to write for or with some Australian artists!

How did you get the gig in Stevie’s band and what was the audition process?

As a result of having a myspace profile, I was referred and received an invitation to audition in the Los Angeles area. The audition took place over 4 days, and was the most intense experience of my musical life. There were a total of 9 keyboardists auditioning for 2 spots. All of the people auditioning were incredible musicians, with long, impressive resumes. I believe I was the only one from a different musical world (the same week that I auditioned for Stevie Wonder, I’d performed Schubert and Bernstein with the Oakland Symphony Chorus). The Wonder audition was essentially a test of one’s musicality, ear, stamina and mettle. Although I should have been petrified in that environment, I went through the audition with a sense of peace and joy. I was just so happy to be there, in the presence of a legendary musical genius!

How many members are in Stevie’s band currently?

The band consists of 13 members:
Bass & Music Director: Nate Watts
Drums: Stanley Randolph
Guitars: Errol Cooney and Kyle Bolden
Percussion: Munyungo Jackson and Fausto Cuevas
Keys: Roman Johnson and me
Vocals: Keith John, Dejah Gomez and Aisha Morris
Horns: Ryan Kilgore and Dwight Adams

What was your biggest challenge when you joined the band?

My biggest challenge was and continues to be mastering all of the many parts (piano, rhodes, clav, strings, horns, flutes, etc.) for each of the hundreds of songs in Stevie Wonder’s catalogue. Stevie is an excellent and exacting musician, and expects his band members to perform to his specifications. That’s no small task!

How much room does Stevie allow for extended solos and improvisation…and what kind of cues does he give to indicate there is a change coming? Are the cues musical or physical?

Stevie is incredibly generous and gracious in life and on stage. He always makes sure that each of us in the band receives a solo at some point during the show. He’s also very spiritual and intuitive, and will often divert from a given set list and instead perform songs based on what he’s feeling from a particular crowd. Thus, each concert is a unique event. He generally gives us physical cues when he wants to make a mid concert change, though at times, he’ll just start playing something, sending us scrambling to figure out what he’s playing and in which key. It’s a wonderful exercise in spontaneity!

Do you always play the same parts within songs, or does it vary depending on what Stevie wants to play from gig to gig?

Generally I play the same parts. On occasion, Stevie will decide to stand and sing or play harmonica, in which case either Roman or I will take over Stevie’s keyboard part.

How long does a soundcheck generally run and what kind of things does Stevie like to do with his soundcheck time?

Soundcheck usually lasts 2-3 hours. The band will first run through a series of songs from the actual show. Later, Stevie joins us and decides either to jam or play a new, unreleased song. I’ve heard and played several of his new songs, and I’m very excited about his upcoming projects! The music is beautiful, vital and signature Stevie!

Is there anything you discovered about playing in an internationally touring band like Stevie’s that you didn’t expect?

I didn’t expect for all of the band members to be such great people! To a person, everyone is kind, funny, genuine, and of course extraordinarily talented. The staff and crew are equally lovely. It’s a big, musical, WONDERful family!

You are a professional musician working at the highest level, but do you recall any moments on stage over the last year, where you allowed yourself to step out of your mindset and think “I’m playing this song in Stevie Wonder’s band?”

For the most part, when I’m on stage, I must remain intensely focused. After all, I’m playing keys, singing and dancing for most of the nearly 3 hour performance, so I can’t allow myself to become star struck. But every now and then, I’m gobsmacked at the incredible journey that I’m on. Occasionally, during the ballads where Stevie himself becomes emotional (he’s such a sincere individual), I find that I have to hold myself together and not permit thoughts such as “OMG! I’m on stage with STEVIE WONDER”, lest I burst into the squeal of a super fan!

The world loves Stevie and his music, and we know he is a musical genius. As a musician playing in the same band, have you witnessed any particular moments where that musical ‘genius’ was really evident to you? I know you could easily say every night and every minute here, but I’m just wondering for the musicians out there if there was one singular moment that blew you away for the first time?

The first time Stevie Wonder “blew me away” was in the audition. He sat at the piano and easily played John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” in several keys, starting in the original, and moving up chromatically, soloing over the tune in each key. As many pianists know, unless you’re a studied jazz pianist, that’s quite impressive! I am always impressed by Stevie’s playing. He has an incredible ear, an unparalleled sense of melody, rhythm and phrasing, and plays everything from the heart. I take every opportunity to stand and watch him play, trying to absorb everything that I can. He inspires me.

Your favourite song to play in the set and why?

I most enjoy playing the song “If It’s Magic” with Stevie, because it’s just him and me. I have many years of experience as an accompanist, and am passionate about that musical role. I listen carefully to Stevie’s breathing and phrasing and make every effort to be perfectly supportive. I use a harp patch on the Yamaha XS8, and play with as much finesse as I can in order to emulate an actual harp.

What is it about the Yamaha Motif that fills your needs and what are the features you utilize on stage?

I love the quality of the keyboard patches on the XS8. The weighted keys feel great under my fingers, and I’m always confident that my musical intentions are properly conveyed. The awesome keyboard tech, Phil Moseley, sets up the user patches in a way that allows me the greatest flexibility in moving between sounds quickly. Since Stevie can and does change the set list in a flash, I need to be able to find patches immediately!

The pads are a great feature of the Roland Fantom X7 from a live point of view. Do you get to use the pads to trigger sounds or samples? Also with a show like Stevie’s, does the large screen make it easier to program your split points and layers?

The horns on the X7 are great. When I’m assigned horn parts,
I automatically go to the X7. I play the X7 exclusively on “Living For The City”.
I don’t actually use the X7 pads during the show. I do appreciate the large screen as
I swiftly move between patches.

Does the band use in-ear monitoring or standard stage monitors? Venues and conditions vary; have you come across any venues/gigs where it was difficult to hear sections of the band?

For the 2007 tour, I used standard stage monitors. For the 2008 tour, most of us, including me, are now using in-ear monitors. What a difference! I can hear so much more clearly, and connect with the music in a way that was challenging with stage monitors. Of course, I rely on our top-notch audio staff to make sure that the sound is right and safe for my ears. With the stage monitors, it was especially difficult to clearly hear Roman, the other keyboard player. Now, I can hear him, which is great because he’s amazing!

After playing electric keyboards for a period of time, do you yearn to get back to playing an acoustic piano and what kind of acoustic piano do you have at home?
Ideally, I’d play an acoustic piano daily. However, during the tour, I am only able to play an acoustic piano on show days, when I walk over to Stevie’s piano (before he arrives), and play a little Chopin, Bach, Rachmaninoff, etc. I enjoy playing keyboards, but I adore playing piano! At home, I have a lovely Steinway Upright Professional. It’s a very nice piano, but I look forward to the day when I can have a grand piano!

What are you looking forward to most about the Australian tour?

I’m most looking forward to the Australian landscape, to hearing aboriginal music in person, to learning about the culture, and to performing Stevie’s music for what I’m sure will be his many adoring fans.

Note: 2014. Victoria now plays with Arsenio Hall’s TV show band The Posse

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